November 18, 2014 update: For my money, Google’s effort to make Climategate go away, as I document below, is as chilling as any other part of the story. If you missed it then, kick back and enjoy the story of a climate conspiracy, a search-engine algorithm and its very human masters, and a stay-at-home dad with a couple of questions.
December 2, 2009
Among the points of interest in the unfolding climate scandal is the fact that the term “climategate” rapidly eclipsed global warming in the number of links produced by a simple Google search.
As is standard, Google’s auto-suggest function facilitated this, several days into the story’s evolution. Anyone typing in the letters c-l-i would see the suggested time-saving choice of “climate gate.” Within a day or two of the auto-suggest function being added for “climategate” it had become the top item in the list.
Suddenly, though, on Monday December 1, Google stopped offering “climategate” as a choice to those who typed c-l-i and even to those who typed c-l-i-m-a-t-e-g-a-t. Strange.
Intrigued, I sent a few questions to Google’s Global Communications Department and a polite gentleman by the name of Jake Hubert responded right away.
This is what he wrote back in an e-mail:
I can verify that Google has not ever removed the query [climategate] or variations of the query from Google Suggest. It was never a “decision” as you suggest in your question, but instead it may have disappeared from the Suggest feature because of a normal update of the Suggest feature. The suggestions change dynamically over time through automated processes based on relevance algorithms.
Google Suggest uses a variety of algorithms in order to come up with relevant suggestions while the user is typing. We do remove certain clearly pornographic or hateful or malicious slur terms from Suggest, but we have not removed anything in this case.
Hope this helps,
In my response, I pointed out that the number of links produced by a “climategate” query was growing by leaps and bounds, drawing attention to the fact that “climategate” had eclipsed global warming (by that point) by more than half. (The doubling would be completed in the next 24 hours.)
Could he double-check with his product team?
His response was not surprising:
I hear what you’re saying, and I have already verified my prior statement with our product team.
At this point, although I suspected I was getting the run-around, I thought I’d give Jake one last shot at solving this problem:
I’m not questioning whether your product team confirmed your statement. Thank you again for that. I wonder, though, whether they have the complete story.
For instance, I wonder whether you and they have run some experiments just to see how odd this is? In your first response, you wrote, “The suggestions change dynamically over time through automated processes based on relevance algorithms.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the relevance algorithms work according to numbers of searches and links. Google Suggest fills in, for instance, both your name (although your name search produces only 680,000 links) and my name (which produces only 1,690,000 links). Climategate, on the other hand, yields 16 million links (growing by the hour), but Google Suggest doesn’t provide suggestions. So, the math doesn’t appear to add up.
Would it be possible to give me an example of another word or phrase that is yielding more and more hits (has more than 15 million already) but that Google Suggest does not in-fill (or stops during the word or phrase’s ascendancy)?
Barring such examples, this has the appearance of a political decision from high up the chain of command.
Would it be possible to provide me with contact information for a press officer at Google at the executive level?
Thank you in advance.
Unlike the previous efforts at communication, this one was met with silence. At that point, I thought it might save time to work my way up the chain of command. I e-mailed a letter to Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, to whom I forwarded my correspondence with Jake. Toward the end of my letter I wrote the following:
Unfortunately, what this situation appears like is one in which someone with an interest in suppressing Climategate prevailed upon someone within the Google structure to remove Climategate from the list of auto-suggests. (Other phrases starting with climate are still Google-suggested even though they have many fewer links than Climategate.)
I asked him if it would it be possible to have someone from his staff look into this. I also asked if it would be possible to interview him by phone. Failing that, I said, perhaps I could send him a list of questions?
After sending the message, I went out to pick up my daughter from nursery school. When I returned, there was a message from Jake on my answering machine. Without boring readers with the entirety of the message, the takeaway was the statement “No need to contact the CEO.”
I returned Jake’s call and we spent a pleasant ten minutes on the phone, during which he explained that there was “no conspiracy,” that the algorithm governing Google Suggest simply had its own idiosyncracies, things of that nature. Nothing remotely credible, I am afraid, although I have no doubt that Jake was sincere.
I decided then to try another e-mail to Eric Schmidt (Sorry about that, Jake!). In the meantime, I’d seen that Google searching “climategate” (if one was willing to type in the whole phrase) now produced 22 million links.
Dear Mr. Schmidt,
Thank you for following up with Jake Hubert, who has reached out to me by telephone.
Unfortunately, the explanation makes no more sense by phone than it did by e-mail.
Climategate generates 22 million links on the main Google search engine. Global warming, by comparison, generates fewer than 11 million.
The idea that a numbers-driven algorithm stopped Google Suggest from filling in Climategate is absurd on its face. (Google Suggest, as it should, continues to in-fill global warming when a user begins typing it.)
These are my questions for you and your staff:
1. Was Google contacted by Al Gore or any one of his business associates regarding climategate searches on Google? If so, when did the approach take place?
2. What was the process that led to the decision to remove Climategate from the Google Suggest function?
3. Will Climategate be added to the list of Google Suggest items again?
4. Does Google feel that it acted according to its own highest ethical principles in this matter?
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
I pushed send, got my daughter into her gymnastics gear, and rushed out the door. When I returned a little less than two hours later, I put my sleeping daughter on the couch and rushed upstairs to check my e-mail. Nada. Then I did a Google search, typing c-l-i-m … and there it was – offered by the gloriously user-friendly Google Suggest function – “climategate.”
You never know.
Was Google briefly complicit in the largest scientific scandal in at least a generation, attempting to minimize it behind the scenes? Like I said, you never, ever, ever, ever know. Ever.
P.S. Four hours after the function returned, Google Suggest on “climategate” was altered again. Instead of the single word “climategate,” which yields 27 million links per search, Google now offers “climate gate scandal,” which yields 6 million. Only by hand-typing the complete word “climategate,” to the last letter, can users view an additional 21 million links. The evident message from on high? “Tamp it down.” The apparent success of the strategy: close to non-existent.
P.P.S. As of six days after this post (today is Tuesday December 8), Google Suggest no longer offers any choices for C-l-i-m-a-t-e-g-a-t-e, no matter how many letters one types. The total number of links appears to be stable around 30 million. The first reader who finds any Google search with 30 million or more links that Google Suggest doesn’t assist with wins the prize.